The fascinating story of a 20th century Mennonite pioneer

Ted Grimsrud

[What follows is a review of one of the latest of a series of biographies of important 20th century Mennonite leaders (some of the others include books about Edmund Kaufman, Harold Bender, Guy Hershberger, and Orie Miller). This book does a nice job of making the story of the largely forgotten pioneering historian, C. Henry Smith. It will be published in Brethren in Christ History & Thought.]

Perry Bush. Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015. 457 pages. $29.99.

 Henry Smith (1875-1948) was a fascinating and important American Mennonite figure whose story has been well told by Perry Bush in Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith.

Born Henry Smith to an Amish farming family near Metamora, Illinois, just as the Mennonite world in North America was beginning a new phase of intense assimilation, this pioneering scholar and successful small-town businessman in many ways marks important transformations in the Mennonite world. He may not have won that many of the Mennonite conflicts he found himself in during the first half of the 20th century, but as Bush helps us see, Smith prefigured much about what this Mennonite world has become.

The attractions of education

Early in his life, Smith (the third of eight children) discovered the attractions of education to the degree that he stepped away from his expected farming future as a young adult and devoted his own energies to a teaching career. He started off working in rural schools but his circle kept expanding. He received all of his formal education in the state of Illinois—a very new Illinois Normal School (eventually Illinois State), the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago.

By the time Smith received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, he had been hired to teach at the just established Goshen College. Smith, who as a young adult added the “C.” to his name to make himself more distinctive, was one of the first Mennonites to earn a Ph.D. and allegedly was the first to gain that degree and remain a Mennonite. Continue reading “The fascinating story of a 20th century Mennonite pioneer”

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A Positive Reading of the Old Testament

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the fourth in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the third in the series, “Positive Theology”]

Ted Grimsrud—July 9, 2017 [Gen 12:1-3; Lev 19:2-18; Hos 11:1-9]

I have this little joke. On the Sundays I preach I make sure to bring my Bible with me. It’s a pretty big book, weights a lot, has a hard cover. My joke is that the reason I bring the Bible with me on these Sundays is so that if anyone challenges what I say in my sermon I can wop them over the head with my Bible—the Bible as weapon….

Seeing the Old Testament as a “problem”

It is interesting that most of the weight in the book comes from the first section, the Old Testament. In my The HarperCollins Study Bible, the New Testament is about 20% of the whole. But I imagine if you could measure what parts Christians actually use, the New Testament would make up about 80% (or more) of our Bible in church.

So, we’ve got this interesting dynamic where Christians profess to affirm the authority of the Bible, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We say we base our faith on the whole Bible. But we only pay attention to a little bit of it. And in fact, for many Christians, the part we don’t pay attention to, the biggest part, is seen as a problem, a hindrance to faith, not even as something kind of neutral or just unnecessary. Now, I am grateful to Valarie and Sophie for their sermons these past two weeks that showed us how to wrest blessings from difficult Old Testament texts. But I imagine that for most of us that kind of interaction with the Old Testament in a sermon was pretty unusual.

When I was early in my pastoral career, I led a Bible study that met weekly for several years. We worked our way through Mark and Romans. When we discussed what to look at next, I said how about something from the Old Testament. One of our members, an older woman whose late husband had been a Presbyterian minister, protested. “I don’t want anything more to do with that bloody book,” she snapped.

I’ve met with resistance on other occasions when speaking favorably about the Old Testament. I well remember after a theology class where I had had a couple of guests, both self-avowed agnostics. We got into an argument that went on for some time. They teamed up on me. They both argued for a literal reading of Old Testament violent portraits of God, treating my attempts to nuance the texts with scorn. They defended a literal reading of the Old Testament not because they believed in it but because they wanted to dismiss it as of value today. Continue reading “A Positive Reading of the Old Testament”

Positive theology

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the third in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the second in the series, “What is justice? Love with claws”]

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2017

Now that I am not teaching anymore, I am more grateful than ever to have the chance to speak from time to time here at Shalom. As I read and think and write and talk with a few people, but don’t have any bigger public outlet for “thinking aloud” I look forward to having this opportunity to share.

Thinking about “sin”

One of the big things that I been thinking about that I’ve wanted to talk about is “sin.” Not mine, or any of yours, but the general theological theme of “sin.” A lot of my energy these days is going into reading and writing about a huge new book, 1,400 pages, written by megachurch pastor, new Anabaptist, preaching theologian Greg Boyd, called Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. Boyd, who is a strongly committed pacifist, makes a lot of controversial points in this book.I have wondered about the wisdom of trying to take it on because if feels a bit like a black hole—once one starts reading it and gets hooked, it’s hard to get out.

But there is so much that is refreshing and helpful in this book that I find worthy of attention. Boyd, as I said, is a pacifist, and that conviction governs his approach to what he calls the “Old Testament’s violent portraits of God.” That is, he wants to provide Christians with resources for understanding those difficult Old Testament texts as being fully compatible with the message of Jesus. I’m not sure he succeeds fully, but I find it so refreshing to read someone who takes these issues head on.

There is one big theme, though, that troubles me. Actually more than one, but one I want to talk about now. Boyd has a pretty thick view of sin. He shares the common Christian sense that humanity as a whole is under the power of sin. That sin defines the human condition. That the Bible is basically an account for how God deals with the sin problem—that sin matters more than anything else when we think about humanity.

I don’t agree with that view—though it would take me several more sermons to explain fully why and what my alternative view is. Right now, I’ll just say that I think we should have a more positive view of our human condition. Before I get into that more, though, I want to illustrate how the Bible itself gives us mixed messages. Let me read two passages. As I read, please think of a word or a few that strike you about the human condition—words from the passages or words the passages trigger for you. Then we’ll talk a bit. I will first read from Psalm 8 and then from Romans 3:9-18. Continue reading “Positive theology”

Engaging Greg Boyd’s new book

I have launched on my PeaceTheology.net site what will hopefully be a long, detailed series of blog posts. I will reflect on what I have been learning from a close reading of a new book, Greg Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017), xlii + 1445 pages.

You can go to the first (long) post by following this link. I’d encourage you to subscribe to that site if you want to follow my posts.

Impeach Trump? Not So Fast….

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2017

I know that I am not alone in believing Donald Trump as president is a disaster. He’s a disaster beyond what anyone I know could have imagined as a realistic possibility up until about a year ago. I also know that I am not alone in deriving quite a bit of pleasure from seeing Trump go from one self-imposed crisis to another. It makes perfect sense that a growing number of people would be talking about impeachment.

But then I wonder, what would happen if Trump were actually impeached? Would that act makes things better in the US and wider world? I’m not so sure.

Only Republicans can impeach Trump

For one thing, Trump can only get impeached if a critical mass of Republicans in Congress vote for it. And we can be sure that that many Republican office-holders would only vote for impeachment if they had become convinced that Trump’s presidency worked against their program.

So, the way Trump gets impeached is not due to our public servants in power realize that Trump is too anti-democratic, too corrupt, too militaristic, too destructive of the environment, or too hostile toward non-white Americans. The way Trump gets impeached is not due to our public servants in power realize that we actually do need a kinder, gentle, more equitable, more peaceable America.

No, the way Trump gets impeached will be due to the Republican leaders deciding that their program—of an accelerated class war where governmental programs that actually enhance the lives of the most vulnerable are defunded with the money going to the 1%—is being hurt too much by the disaster of Trump’s incompetence. Continue reading “Impeach Trump? Not So Fast….”

Dreher’s “Benedict Option”: Part 4—A Believers’ Church Alternative

Ted Grimsrud

In reflecting on Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, I have: (1) Summarized things I appreciate in his discussion, maybe most centrally his assertion that Christians need to take very seriously how our faith should shape our lives in a deeply problematic contemporary North American culture. (2) Offered a fairly sharp critique of his proposals, suggesting that at its heart, Dreher’s Benedict Option does not make the message of Jesus and his embodied love central enough. And, (3) I lingered a bit on the issue of same-sex marriage that Dreher seems to see as the paradigmatic expression of the anti-Christian dynamics in our society today. I believe that judgment is incorrect and profoundly hurtful. I conclude that third blog post by pointing to the possibility of a “Believers’ Church option” that more successfully embody core Christian convictions in countercultural witness. I’ll complete the series with some thoughts about this “option.”

It’s a measure of my appreciation for Dreher’s contribution that I point to it as inspiration for suggesting a “Believers’ Church Option” that perhaps in some ways complements Dreher’s Benedict Option, also perhaps stands over against it as a quite different kind of Christian approach.

The Believers’ Church Tradition

One way to think of Christian traditions is to make a distinction between “magisterial churches” and “believers’ churches.”

Magisterial churches are those traditions with a history of being, in some sense, state churches that are closely linked with magistrates (or governmental leaders). These include most of the larger Christian groups (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant groups such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Anglican).

Alongside these state-connected groups, though, numerous independent Christian fellowships have arisen, especially with the break in western Christendom between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century Reformation. These Believers’ Churches (e.g., Mennonites, Baptists, Church of the Brethren, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals) have typically practiced believers’ baptism and been free from direct linkage with the state, more Bible-centered and less creedal, and non-hierarchical.

Dreher’s Benedict Option seems more closely related to magisterial church traditions (his own connections are mainly Catholic and Orthodox). That legacy may partly explain why Dreher seems unfamiliar with the idea of Christians being content with having a minority status in a given society—and being comfortable with that status. Continue reading “Dreher’s “Benedict Option”: Part 4—A Believers’ Church Alternative”

Dreher’s “Benedict Option”: Part 3—Same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic problem

Ted Grimsrud

Rod Dreher’s book , The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World (Sentinel, 2017), presents itself as a challenge to Christians in general to make their faith more central to their lives and to respond to the alleged anti-Christian influences of contemporary North American culture by developing countercultural communities that empower faithful living (see my first, positive, post on Dreher’s book).

Now, as I elaborate in my second post in this series, Dreher’s argument, as it unfolds, actually presents many problems. At their core lies what I perceive to be a marginalizing of Jesus’s message, most especially Jesus’s call to costly love even toward one’s enemies. As I read Dreher, both in this book and in his prolific blog posts, I see his inattention to Jesus’s message of love to be most apparent in his treatment of same-sex marriage.

The most-discussed problem according to Dreher

Over and over throughout the book and in his blog posts and other writings, Dreher mentions same-sex marriage (s-s-m) and the more general acceptance of same-sex intimate relationships (which is what I assume he means in his common use of the term “homosexuality”—see especially his 2013 blog post, “Sex after Christianity”) as the paradigmatic expression of deeply problematic Western culture. Such acceptance is antithetical to “orthodox Christianity.” Dreher’s discussion suggests that perhaps the main manifestation of the dangers “orthodox Christians” face in our society now and in the near future is the persecution that those who are not accepting of s-s-m face and are sure to face even more in the days to come.

I don’t think he so much means to say that s-s-m is the most important of all issues as that it is our currently paradigmatic issue that shows just how thoroughly Christianity is being routed in our recent “culture wars.” It is the issue that catches up the problems of our society’s movement away from being a Christian culture. He doesn’t clearly explain why he continually cites s-s-m when he needs an example of the growing darkness and the growing danger that “orthodox Christians” will be treated ever harshly by the rulers of the present age (though I expect he would say the above cited essay, “Sex after Christianity” is an attempt to do so; I didn’t find it very illuminating, though). Continue reading “Dreher’s “Benedict Option”: Part 3—Same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic problem”

Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique

Ted Grimsrud

I believe that Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, identifies some genuine problems in American society and proposes a response that in some important ways resonates with biblical faith (see my affirmative first post in this series).  However, that he is partly right actually makes the problems with his proposal more troubling.

The problem: Not enough love

In a nutshell, I would say that the “Benedict Option” ultimately hurts the cause of Christian faith because it does not take Jesus seriously enough. The very core of Jesus’s message points to the path of love—for God, for neighbor, for enemy, for self, and for the rest of creation. Dreher has very little to say in this book about Jesus or about love. It’s fine that this book is about our present day and not a biblical or theological treatise. At the same time, I find it significant that when making his case for what matters most for Christians navigating life “in a post-Christian nation,” Dreher barely references Jesus and the biblical story at all.

It is telling that the one clear call to the path of love does not come until near the end of the book. In the book’s conclusion, Dreher quotes Pastor Greg Thompson, a Presbyterian minister: The Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine” (page 237).

Thompson’s call surely is sincere, and it surely reflects Dreher’s own convictions. However, in the structure of the book, the call to love is clearly on the periphery. Dreher never finds the space to reflect on the meaning of love or to bring Jesus’s life and teaching into the picture. There are other reasons to perceive that love is not the driving force in this project. As I will discuss at more length in my next post, Dreher’s way of focusing on the “problem” of same-sex marriage reflects that marginalization of love.

Ironically, Dreher seems to miss one of the key points in the book that provided him with the image of St. Benedict as standing at the core of his project. In his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre seeks to recover the Aristotelian emphasis on the virtues as what is needed to overcome the moral disarray of modern Western culture. But he points out key difference between Aristotle and later Christian appropriation of virtue ethics. Aristotle did not include love (or, an older term, “charity”) as a key virtue. In Aristotle’s moral universe, an emphasis on love is inconceivable. Whereas, for biblical Christianity, “charity is not … just one more virtue to be added to the list. Its inclusion alters the conception of the good for [humankind] in a radical way” (page 174). Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique”

Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2017

[This is the first of a series of four posts. The others are: “Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’—Part 2: A general critique;” “Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’—Part 3: Same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic problem;” and “Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’—Part 4: A Believers’ Church alternative.”]

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by journalist, blogger, and religious thinker Rod Dreher, is a book that has received an unusual amount of buzz. Clearly Dreher both has an excellent ability to garner publicity (fueled by his passionate energy) and an ability to speak to profound concerns shared by many people. [For summaries of the book’s key ideas, see Dreher’s post “The Benedict Option” from 2013, an excerpt published in Christianity Today, an interview with Dreher in Religion & Politics, and a recent lengthy profile in The New Yorker; here’s a link to a list of links to articles critiquing and otherwise relating to the Benedict Option.]

This is my first, a descriptive and largely positive essay, of a four-post series engaging Dreher’s book. Post two will offer a general critique. Post three will focus on Dreher’s concerns about same-sex marriage. And post four will offer what I am calling a “Believers’ church alternative.” I am most interested in engaging Dreher on the level of theological ethics, a focus not shared very many of the multitude of responses The Benedict Option has elicted.

What The Benedict Option is about

The Benedict Option is a fascinating book that addresses important issues—and should be of great interest for all who think carefully about how Christian faith navigates life in 21st century North America. Dreher writes well. See for yourself in the excerpt published in Christianity Today mentioned above and at his amazingly prolific blog.

It is important to keep Dreher’s stated agenda and his intended audience in mind in reflecting on what he has to say. He is writing to and about conservative Christians (politically and theologically—Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants)—so progressives of any kind who read him should expect to feel as if they are overhearing a conversation they have not been invited to join. That is, he is not trying to persuade those who don’t fit into the circle of his intended audience, so there are not apologetics or carefully constructed arguments justifying controversial views. He’s self-consciously preaching to the choir. I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as a descriptive comment about his writing strategy. There is a lot to criticize in the book (see my next couple of posts!), but I don’t think it should be criticized for not spending much time presenting a careful argument to “BenOp” skeptics.  That’s not Dreher’s agenda.

Dreher hopes to inspire a joining together of Christians of like mind in resistance to the downward spiral of American culture heading toward a pit of moral relativism, individualism, and hostility toward “orthodox” Christians. The goal is to inspire a counterculture that will have the ability to sustain “traditional” faith in this world. Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right”